Sunday, October 4, 2015

To be Sons of the Most High

According to Matthew, Jesus preaches to us from the mountain. He preaches above us, as God, and with all the authority of God. Just as God speaks to Moses on the mountain, so Jesus speaks to his disciples this Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1).

And, according to Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place (Luke 6:17) to be among us, to be one of us, to be a man like us in all things but sin, to be our brother and to speak to us as our brother, this Sermon on the Plain.

And really these two sermons are substantially similar, though perhaps the one has a more divine perspective and the other a more human perspective. The fact that the divine and human messages agree completely reveals how completely Jesus is both God and man, how clear is the image of God in man, and how possible it has become for us to become one with God in Christ Jesus.

Today, speaking to us on the plain, Jesus admonishes us to behave in quite extraordinary and unworldly ways.

He tells us to do to others what we wish they would do to us (6:31). That’s as opposed to getting all you can get, doing what you can get away with, and looking out for number one, which seem to be guiding principles of life in the world. Pope Francis, I understand, recently repeated this golden rule to a joint session of Congress. Let us pray they hear and listen.

St. Maximos the Confessor
Jesus tells us to love, not only those who love us, but even those who hate us. St. Maximus the Confessor says that Jesus commands us this “to free [us] from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make [us] worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. [We] cannot attain such love if [we] do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them 'to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'" (1 Tim 2:4).

A lot of people in the world and in the Church support family values. As well they should. But sometimes, our idea of strengthening the family goes no further than loving those who love us. And sometimes we even think it includes hating and seeking to destroy those who would tear our families apart.

And that’s not enough. Jesus sets us a higher standard. What about loving our enemies? Or the enemies of our families? What about murderers and drug dealers and prostitutes and rapists, who make our neighborhoods unsafe? Do you want them dead? I have heard fellow Christians speak murderously of evil men. I myself know what it is like to hate and even to want dead someone who would hurt the innocent or the weak. May God forgive me, the sinner. Let me tell you something, God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23). This is the word of the Lord that came to Ezekiel (18:1). So, when we desire the death of a sinner – even if he is an Islamic terrorist, even if he hurt our child – we are not like God.

Jesus tells us to do good to those who do no good to us. Giving on condition of getting is just bartering. It isn’t love. Just because someone isn’t in a position to do anything for us, doesn’t mean it’s alright for us to neglect their needs. The neighborhood in which we find ourselves right now offers many opportunities to do good for those who can’t or won’t do good for us. When we think about the poor and the drug addicts and the homeless and the alcoholics who are our neighbors here, alongside the other fine and virtuous people who live here with us as well, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “what good are they to us?” or  “What good can they do for us?” That isn’t the right question. Rather, if we think about our neighbors here with the mind of Christ, our question will be, “What good can we do for them?” “How can we make their lives better?” “How can we benefit them in both spirit and body?”
Russian icon of St. Nicholas of Velikoretsk,
17th century,
made for the Church of Velikoretsk

If we were Christians, the idea of a needy neighborhood would attract us, not repel us. We would seek people in need – people among whom we could do good without receiving anything in return.

Remember that Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and they say that this was also the motto of St. Nicholas, the patron of the Byzantine Catholic Church,

Jesus tells us to lend our goods and our money expecting nothing in return. Now this is distinctly unworldly. Already, more than five hundred years before Christ, the Lord plainly says to Ezekiel that a righteous man does not lend at interest (Ezekiel 18:5,8). Nowadays, collecting interest is as common as opening a savings account or an IRA. And, given the economic reality that our money has no fixed value, I suppose these interest rates actually are usually not usurious in that they do not increase the value of our savings so much as maintain it. But we have lost all understanding of usury in the contemporary world and Church.

Even if interest rates are not always usurious in the contemporary context, they often are. Witness the predatory pay-day loan stores that pop up especially in poor neighborhoods to take advantage of those who already have little by offering them needed loans, but with outrageous and crippling interest. The Christian ethical principle to keep in mind with lending is that a loan is always to be made for the benefit of the borrower, not the lender. This is just exactly backwards of how the world thinks.

Meanwhile, Jesus goes beyond prohibiting the collection of interest and commands us to expect nothing in return for our loans. Not even the principal, let alone the interest. Now that’s radical. It’s downright ludicrous, in fact, by any worldly measure. That’s not even what we’d call lending, It’s more like just plain old giving. I think that’s his point.

Treat others as you want them to treat you. Love even those who do not love you. Do good even for those who do not do good for you. Lend without expecting any return. Why? What is the purpose of all this disproportionate behavior? Do you know who you'd be like if you did all these things? Well, I"ll tell you: you’d be like God.

God loves us, even when we do not love him. He loves even his enemies, those who hate him, and those who persecute his Church. He loved Paul before, during, and after his persecution of the Church. Jesus loved and forgave those who crucified Him even as they were driving the nails into his hands and feet.

God does good for those who do no good for him. What good can we – we, who are sinful – do for God? What gift can we creatures offer to our creator worthy of his greatness? And yet, he gives us every good thing. All blessing flows from our good God. He gives us our lives, our loved ones. Every simple pleasure and every blessing come from God.

“He is kind [even] to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35) As the life of Hosea prophesies, even if we are unfaithful like Gomer, God is faithful (cf. 2 Tim 2:13).

So this way of life Jesus commands us to today is nothing less than a prescription toward theosis. Do these things and you will be like God. Jesus says that if we do these things, we will be “sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). These things, which are impossible without grace, help make us again like God.

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